Two excellent discs from Pentatone. And a little story to go along with them.
The first shiny silver disc which begins this series of Mozart's late symphonies is a multi-channel SACD from 2019 (#40 & 41). The second one (#38 & 39), from 2021, is stereo CD only. Why is that? Why the change mid-series? I could site other examples where Pentatone has ceased releasing SACDs in an ongoing series, mid-stream, and converted to stereo-only CD. (I've also witnessed Chandos cutting back on the number of SACD releases, but they aren't arbitrarily brutal about it; there is a common-sense reasoning behind their decisions, with continuity and consistency in mind.)
Pentatone took a sudden turn a couple years ago when the once premium SACD label began issuing CD-only releases. I contacted Pentatone about this in early 2020 and they actually took the time to respond with an attempt to justify their change in direction. First, a rather simple explanation: "the number of customers with SACD players is relatively small and we get more and more complaints from distributors and retailers...that our products are expensive in comparison to other labels." And, then perhaps to assuage me a bit, expounded further: "We do, however, stick to SACD for repertoire where surround has the biggest added value (huge orchestral works, for example)."
Ok. Fair enough. So let's take a closer look at both of those statements.
Regarding pricing, why was Pentatone purportedly singled out for "complaints" about pricing? Their premium titles aren't any more expensive than those from Chandos and BIS and others. And is SACD in and of itself really the reason they are expensive? Presumably so. Because rather than reevaluate their pricing structure and internal operating expenses, Pentatone made the arbitrary decision to stop making multi-channel DSD recordings for many of their new productions. And they've completely stopped producing those interesting multi-channel reissues from other labels, such as the original 1970s-era quadrophonic Philips and DG mastertapes. And in one fell swoop, Pentatone went from being one of the premier Classical specialty labels, where excellence and consistency were assured and new releases were eagerly anticipated, to being just another independent CD label, albeit one among many good ones.
Interestingly, their "What we stand for" page has disappeared from new CD releases. You remember it right? - the page at the back of the booklet where they once proclaimed what was important to them, including the section about "Sound Excellence", which stated, in part: "Pentatone stands for premium quality. Recorded with the most powerful and nuanced audio technologies..."
But more to the crux of the issue - regarding their claim of "sticking to SACD for repertoire where surround has the biggest added value (huge orchestral works, for example)", let's take a gander at some of their recent SACD releases over the past two years and see how they're doing with that commitment:
- Mari Kodama plays Beethoven piano transcriptions "Kaleidoscope" (solo piano)
- Arabella Steinbacher plays Vivaldi and Piazzola Four Seasons
- Calefax Reed Quintet plays Bach transcriptions
- Handel Concerti
- Telemann transcriptions for violin
- American Song Album for voice and piano
- Annelien Van Wauwe plays French clarinet recital
- Grieg lyric pieces for piano solo
- Baroque music played on the sheng (mouth organ)
- Mendelssohn songs for cello and piano
Granted, I've cherry picked their releases to emphasize the glaring deviation from their stated criteria for SACD production, and to highlight some of the fluff which was inexplicably deemed worthy of the royal treatment. A mouthorgan recital? A reed quintet playing Bach? Really?
Now let's compare that to a list of some of their CD releases during the same time period, those productions which were deemed unworthy of SACD and were relegated to stereo CD-only:
- Gershwin's Porgy & Bess
- Brahms Symphonies cycle
- Mozart Symphonies cycle
- Mozart/Bruckner/Stravinsky Masses
- Handel's Messiah (complete)
- Rene Jacobs's ongoing Schubert Symphony cycle (began on SACD, transitioned to CD mid-stream)
- Janowski's complete Beethoven Symphonies (individual releases were SACD, new box set compilation is CD only)
- Barnatan's complete Beethoven Piano Concertos
- The Oregon Symphony's Americana symphony series (began on SACD, transitioned to CD mid-stream)
It looks to me like there is an awful lot of small-scale (and solo) stuff in the SACD list which merited a multi-channel recording (but doesn't really benefit all that much from it), while a lot of "huge orchestral productions" were denied it. Why?
Does it simply come down to Pentatone promoting what they perceive to be a "big name" (STAR POWER!) like the big-boy labels love to do? Or the clever, gimmicky, eye-catching titles which they predict might garner more than average sales? Those are the only answers I can come up with to explain the disparity between these two lists.
But I digress. And it's time to face reality.
Such is our world today, where Classical music lovers are becoming a dying breed and physical discs have essentially become antiques, going the way of the 8-track and cassette tapes - a novelty that elicits mockery from the nieces and nephews when they see your CD collection. ("WHAT are those?" and "You still buy CDs? LOL!") So I understand that record labels have to keep afloat. And sometimes decisions must be made which may be deemed necessary by them, but don't always make sense to the collector.
Getting to the matter at hand, I am pleased to give praise when praise is due. This series of Mozart Symphonies from Manze and the NDR Radio Philharmonic is excellent. The performances are superb in both installments - fresh, alert and with more than a hint of "historically-informed" authenticity, without going all-out obnoxious about it, bringing crisp articulation, clarified textures and joyous tempos. And the sound is very good indeed. Yes, even on the second disc, despite it being CD only. I thank Pentatone for bringing these wonderful recordings to market.
So, aside from being dismayed that the higher resolution format's days are numbered, I guess my biggest issue here is with the change mid-stream. Couldn't this project (and others like it), once underway, be continued and completed as originally conceived? They can start the next new project with the change to CD-only, and keep some continuity and consistency (like Chandos is doing). It's the arbitrary, nonsensical decisions as to what gets it and what doesn't that irritate me most.
Now then - how do I file this Mozart CD?
1) With the SACDs, along with the first volume, because it's part of a series? Or,
2) With the CDs, far away from its companion?
Oh I know - this is the Virgo in me, fussing over where to put it on my shelves. And I'm sure I'm a bit unique (let's be nice), but with nearly 9,000 discs in my collection, my filing system is of utmost importance if I'm ever going to find what I'm looking for in the future. Perhaps it's time to downsize.